A library in Colorado is adding vegetable seeds to its collection of lending materials. I’m always saying how if more people gardened, the world would be a better place – we’d have more respect for the earth, we’d have more conversations with our neighbors, we’d all understand the value of hard work and the true cost of the food we purchase in grocery stores. As a gardener, I couldn’t possibly pretend this is a bad thing, but I have some serious reservations about this scheme. Do the borrowers truly understand their responsibility in this contract?
What educational support are they providing alongside the seed lending to make sure that the strains are preserved as pure? The average person understands very little of how plants work, so are they going to be able to perform proper pollination to ensure that they are returning the same variety that they checked out? While many vegetables can self-pollinate, varieties are best perpetuated by crossing two different plants of the same variety to preserve genetic diversity within the same strain. So while this project is intended to preserve heirloom varieties, which is important and wonderful, is there enough educational support in place to make sure this actually happens, or are they going to be muddying up their seed collection season after season?
Are they providing education about saving the seeds of varieties that are grown for their leaves or roots and not their seed-bearing fruits? The library-going mother and daughter featured in the article linked above were eager to grow carrots and talked about how excited they would be to plant seed and harvest carrots 30 days later. Did the library tell this poor woman that to be able to return seed from carrots, they will need to keep at least two plants in the ground for the entire year, as carrots are biennial and will not set the seed she’s duty-bound to return until next season? That’s a pretty big commitment for a casual or first-time gardener. I suspect that the library’s supply of carrot, beet, and parsley seed will be dwindling rather quickly.
And what of those who don’t return the seed? Do they get fined? Most people don’t even return library books on time over a span of three weeks (believe me, I know, I worked in a library all through undergrad) – how are they going to return the seed properly over several months? Over a year?
Seed saving is a pretty straightforward easy process if you know what you’re doing – but will the tomato seeds be properly fermented with the pulp as they ought to be? If seeds are returned with vegetable matter still clinging to them, who is going to clean them properly for storage?
Anything that makes gardening more accessible for the average person makes me happy. But I take serious issue with things that set people up for failure, and if people don’t accurately understand what they’re taking on and how to properly pollinate, ripen, and store the seed they’re supposed to return, many of them will feel like they failed and be unwilling to grow vegetables again. I worry about these seed borrowers accruing a sense of guilt over not returning the carrot seeds they borrowed because they didn’t understand what creating carrot seed actually involves.
Maybe I worry too much. Maybe I’m a negative nellie. Probably. But listen here, seed library borrowers – if you have questions, please ask. Ask your local cooperative extension. If you feel like you’re failing, please don’t give up. Take it as a learning opportunity – me and dozens of other garden writers are standing by to help.